The False Joe Paterno Death Report That Sparked Them All

Pro Publica reports that it all started with a single tweet from a student-run online Penn State University community site, Onward State:

The two reporters appeared to be offering what the editor believed was independent confirmation of the same fact: that a high-ranking athletic department official had emailed the football team news of Paterno’s death. One reporter spoke with someone who had seen the email, Shaver said.

The other claimed to have a similar source with the email. After discussing what they had, Edwards made the final decision to send the tweet, Shaver said.

But the source of the fracas is only one of many worthwhile snippets. Take the next paragraph, emphasis mine:

The report was picked up, unattributed at first, by CBS Sports. The CBS Sports report was repeated by @BreakingNews, which has 3.5 million followers. (CBS Sports and Breaking News later apologized.)

The article was written in collaboration with Poynter who have their own article1. It includes some of the erroneous tweets verbatim. As you would expect, no story on atrocious journalism without The Huffington Post who published the story, again, with no attribution. At some point around the time it turned out that the original story was wrong, they posted a correction in which they correctly attributed the source. Go figure.

To add insult to injury, the managing editor of the original source took it upon himself to resign in an inspiring act of integrity in light of the infamous “breaking” article. An excerpt of the resignation letter:

I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.

In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm. All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.

Half of good journalism is getting it right. The other half is admitting when you were wrong—and granting the retraction as much attention as the original article.

It took one small student community website to spark the media explosion in the larger news agencies, and it took one managing editor to shame them twice over by taking what he deemed the necessary measures to remove a journalistic blight from his workplace and to uphold his sense of integrity—to which the other media responded with whispers of wrong-doing.

People talk about how social media and the speed of information today increase the risk of getting a story wrong, but, to me, they serve as a convenient vista to display nakedly the journalistic incompetence of anyone.

When the dust settles, all the articles are counted and weighed, and oftentimes, we find them light on truth. The next time you hear journalists complain about the state of today’s information society, you’ll know better than to take them at their word.

Social media and the information age are not the newspapers’ writing on the wall, but they might be for established incompetent reporters.

Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin.

  1. Poynter, too, ran the fake story